CUI BONO? BAD IDEAS COME FROM SOMEWHERE
Perhaps the most obvious reason why foolish ideas persist is that someone has an interest in defending or promoting them. Although open debate is supposed to weed out dubious ideas and allow facts and logic to guide the policy process, it often doesn't work that way. Self-interested actors who are deeply committed to a particular agenda can distort the marketplace of ideas.
A case in point is the long-standing U.S. embargo on Cuba, imposed in 1960 with the purpose of toppling Fidel Castro. It is hard to think of a better example of a failed policy that has remained in place for decades despite clear evidence that it is not just a failure, but actively counterproductive. If the embargo were going to bring Castro down, it surely would have happened by now, yet it is kept alive by the political influence of the Cuban-American lobby. Protectionist tariffs and farm subsidies illustrate the same problem. Every undergraduate economics major knows that these programs waste money and reduce overall consumer welfare; yet farmers, factory owners, and labor unions threatened by foreign competition routinely demand subsidies or protection, and they too often receive it. The same thing is true for costly initiatives like ballistic-missile defense, which has been assiduously promoted by aerospace and defense contractors with an obvious interest in getting the Pentagon to fill their coffers at public expense -- never mind that it might not actually work.
Even in areas where there is a clear scientific consensus, like climate change, public discourse has been distorted by well-organized campaigns to discredit the evidence and deny that any problem exists. Not surprisingly, those whose economic interests would be hurt if we significantly reduced our reliance on fossil fuels have aggressively funded such campaigns.
In the United States, this problem with self-interested individuals and groups interfering in the policy process appears to be getting worse, in good part because of the growing number of think tanks and "research" organizations linked to special interests.
Organizations like the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for a New American Security, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and the Center for American Progress -- to name but a few -- are not politically neutral institutions, in that their ultimate purpose is to assemble and disseminate arguments that advance a particular worldview or a specific policy agenda. The people who work at these institutions no doubt see themselves as doing serious and objective analysis -- and many probably are -- but such organizations are unlikely to recruit or retain anyone whose research challenges the organization's central aims. Their raison d'être, after all, is the promotion of policies favored by their founders and sponsors.
In addition to advocating bad ideas even after they have been found wanting, many of these institutions also make it harder to hold public officials accountable for major policy blunders. For example, one would think that the disastrous war in Iraq would have discredited and sidelined the neoconservatives who dreamed up the idea and promoted it so assiduously. Once out of office, however, they returned to friendly think tanks and other inside-the-Beltway sinecures and resumed their efforts to promote the discredited policies they had favored when they were in government. When a country's foreign-policy elite is insulated from failure and hardly anyone is held accountable, it will be especially difficult to learn from the past and formulate wiser policies in the future.
The rise of the Internet and blogosphere may have facilitated more open and freewheeling public debate about controversial issues, and websites like YouTube and WikiLeaks have fostered greater transparency and made the marketplace of ideas somewhat more efficient. In the blogosphere, at least, it is no longer taboo to talk critically about the "special relationship" with Israel, even if politicians and mainstream media figures remain reticent.
Nevertheless, there is a downside to these encouraging developments. The proliferation of websites and cable news outlets encourages some people to consume only the news and analysis that reinforce their existing views. Thus, a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 80 percent of those who regularly listen to radio host Rush Limbaugh or watch Fox News's Sean Hannity are conservatives, even though conservatives are only 36 percent of the U.S. population. Similarly, the audience for MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow has nearly twice the fraction of liberals as the general public.
Moreover, competition between a growing number of news outlets seems to be fostering a media environment in which reasoned discourse matters less than entertainment value. Anyone who thinks that major issues of public policy should be dealt with on the basis of logic and evidence cannot help but be alarmed by the growing prominence of Glenn Beck and the know-nothing defiance of the Tea Party.